‘Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,’ a tense, stylish and emotional Doctor Who two-parter, is one of the most daring pieces of populist science fiction I have ever seen. And by that I mean, it does not make much sense. Often the very best art is confusing the first time around. (Blade Runner comes to mind.) While the first half of the story ‘Silence in the Library’ has a fairly simple narrative, the questions it poses are cloaked in mystery. ‘Forest of the Dead,’ meanwhile, is a baffling cornucopia of ideas and resolutions. Upon first viewing, ‘Forest’ was beyond my proper comprehension. Yet the one thing I knew for absolute certain was that it was brilliant. And indeed it is.
But what does it all mean? To me, Steven Moffat’s tale is essentially about the inherent difficulties in persevering through life. In the end, we are all just one tiny blip in the vast busyness of the world. Especially with the onset of the internet, we are reminded more than ever of this sad fact. Moffat’s story takes place in a vast, planet-sized library, filled with every book ever written. We are the books. (Humor me here.) Some written, some still developing, some yet to be begun. Our past is written, but the future is all possibility. And so it should remain. When Donna attempts to pick up a book from her future, the Doctor intervenes, simply saying “Spoilers.” The Doctor’s goal is always to write the future, not to read it. He seeks to make our futures better. If we are our own authors, the Doctor is like an editor: pops in at key points, fixes any major problems, and then moves on. It’s an extraordinary power he has, and Moffat knows it. At the close of ‘Forest,’ the Doctor gains the ability to open the TARDIS doors by clicking his fingers. There is no better image to convey the great power the Doctor holds. Equally, however, the Doctor knows the limits he must impose on himself. After entering the TARDIS, he clicks his fingers once again, and the doors close. As they always must.
Now, you may feel that’s all nonsense. Moffat’s writing may have read entirely different to you. Maybe you saw it as a simple love story – a valid viewpoint, which I’ll get to in a moment. Or maybe you derided it as a rehash of Moffat’s previously used ideas, as some have accused. (To which I say, rubbish. There’s more originality in these two episodes than in most other writing out there. Certainly more than in any other Who story.) ‘Library/Forest’ works on several levels, and that is what I love about it. However you see it, though, I’d be very surprised to hear someone say it elicited no response from them at all. This two-parter is certainly provocative, if nothing else.
Perhaps exposing Moffat’s cynical side, the story involves no less than two doomed romances. First and foremost, there is the Doctor and River. River is an archaeologist and an old acquaintance of the Doctor’s. Or rather, she is from her perspective. But thanks to the twisty nature of time travel (a theme Moffat revels in) the Doctor has yet to meet River. To her he is an old 'lover'; but to him she is a stranger. Upon realising this, the look on River’s face is heartbreaking. Her subsequent arc and eventual acceptance of her role is beautifully crafted by Moffat. River proves her intimacy with the Doctor by whispering his name in his ear. She laments his unfamiliarity with her, comparing him – in one of my favourite lines – to “a picture of someone you knew from years before you knew them...not quite finished.” Hers is a tragic journey, on a par with poor Joan from Paul Cornell’s ‘Human Nature/The Family of Blood.’ Ultimately River realises her fate, sacrificing herself to save the lives of thousands of others. In their final scene together, she interrupts the Doctor’s prophesising just as he interrupted Donna (“Spoilers…”). Like the Doctor, River understands that one’s future must remain unwritten to be properly experienced. Even the Doctor, Time Lord though he may be, must have some surprises in store. He has their whole relationship to come, River assures him, all of it written and waiting to be experienced. He only need turn the page.
Donna, meanwhile, is trapped in a love story not of her own making. After being ‘saved’ by the library’s central computer at the end of the first part, Donna is programmed a perfect life: husband, kids, nice house, and contentment. Only everything is moving too fast. One second she is meeting her husband, the next they are married. One moment she is thinking of going to the park, the next she is there. Donna knows something is wrong, but lives on regardless. Moffat could be saying any number of things here. He could be attacking the incessantly fast-paced nature of modern storytelling, with its restless insistence on moving from one thing to the next as quickly as possible. Or Moffat could be criticising people within society who speed from one moment to the next without ever taking the time to appreciate things. Or he could simply be toying with conventional narrative in an attempt to subvert our expectations. Regardless, Donna’s love also ends in ultimate separation – not only from her husband but also her children, who (in the episode’s most horrifying scene) disappear right before her very eyes. Catherine Tate’s performance in this moment taps into bleak emotions one would more expect from Ian McEwan than Doctor Who.
Finally there are the monsters. The Vashta Nerada, as they are called, turn out to have emanated from every single book in the library. They take over the bodies of good people, turning them into ruthless villains. Such corrupting elements can be found in any book, some more than others. Though they may seem harmless, Moffat appreciates the great persuasive power a simple book can hold. Any one could awaken something within us, a horrifying facet of ourselves of which we were unaware. As the Doctor says, all people have a fear of the dark; not just of the darkness out there, but of the darkness within ourselves.
These are all interesting and expansive ideas which, were it not for sleep’s beckoning call, I would love to explore further. Just as I would love to delve into the several themes and ideas which I have failed to mention. Moffat’s story is deep, and I feel I have only scratched the surface of it. Beyond these wonderings, however, I have only one more thing to say: Thank you, Mr Moffat. Thank you.